Yesterday I preached my first sermon as a United Methodist minister.
I’ve preached probably somewhere around a dozen sermons in my life, but this was my first one as a pastor. My first one in my first appointment. My first one that felt like… like it counted. I had images in my head of angels on the sidelines of heaven holding up scorecards (the Olympics’ beginning this weekend clearly didn’t help my nerves or my imagination).
I have been nervous before preaching before, but it has always been the typical, “Oh, I hope I don’t stumble over my words, I hope I don’t forget that gesture, I hope no one falls asleep.” This time was different. This time my thoughts were, “I hope my theology isn’t heretical, I hope I don’t accidentally call God by a masculine pronoun, I hope the other pastors don’t talk negatively about this sermon behind my back” (actually I’m still nervous about that last one– though this reflects much, much more on my own insecurities, and horror stories I’ve heard from other churches, than anything I ought to realistically expect in my current church).
As I sat up there in the profoundly uncomfortable Preaching Throne, as it should be called, I found myself for the first time in my life wondering if I was actually going to puke from nerves. My stomach felt alarmingly vacuous and my lips tingled and my legs whipped around restlessly under my alb. The ladies closest to me in the choir gave me their loudest and most encouraging smiles as the Scripture was read and my mic went live, so that I could hear—or imagined I could hear—my labored breathing amplified throughout the colossal sanctuary, which had suddenly tripled in size and crowd, at least in my frantic mind.
I have known my Scripture passage for weeks, and have been researching it and praying on it and thinking on it for weeks. But by Friday morning, I still had nothing on paper, just a bunch of scribbles and notes with big arrows, exclamation points, and ellipses in my journal. I was beginning to panic.
Because God is gracious, everything flowed by Friday night, so that I had SOMETHING on the page, and Saturday found me with that “Aha!” moment around 11:45am, and I nestled into the idea that this might just work…
But when you’re sitting there waiting for the final hymn, prayer, or Scripture to be over before you have to climb into that pulpit, all your sense of security disappears.
I wanted so desperately, you see, to impress the congregation. To charm them with my wit and poetry. And perhaps an even more ardent goal was to impress my coworkers. They’re all master preachers, each with groupies in the congregation and all the right theology. I was terrified I wouldn’t live up to their legacy. What could be worse than being that pastor that people go, “Ugh, not her preaching. Let’s just go home.” Which really happens.
So I agonized over this Scripture and this sermon, all but weeping as I stared desperately at the blinking cursor on my empty Word document for days on end.
What I forgot, though, is that we are Methodists, and our inheritance, our bread, our butter, our lifeblood, is GRACE. I remembered my old policy: When you don’t know what to preach, preach grace. So I wrote what I knew: God’s grace.
When she found me with my teeth chattering and lips nearly bitten off in my office before the service began, one of my fellow associates said to me, “What are you afraid of? It’s all grace around you.”
It’s all grace around you.
God’s grace, the grace of warmed hearts looking up at you from the congregation, the grace of the choir’s energy practically buoying me up, the grace of friends who looked across the chancel at me and gave me a subtle thumbs up, the grace of my mother sitting in the fourth pew back on the right with her proudest smile on, and the grace of my father with tears in his eyes. The grace, even, that my senior minister was out of town and thus I didn’t have a preaching professor-slash-superstar appraising me as I preached!
It’s all grace around you.
I wrote these words at the top of my sermon and stared anxiously at them as the service marched on toward my sermon. And the most important “Aha!” moment of all came in that place—
It is not about charming my congregation, impressing my colleagues, making my old preaching professors proud. It’s not even fractionally about those things. It’s about magnifying the name of Jesus Christ. It’s about breathing the Spirit and letting Her inhabit your lungs and your vocal chords. It’s about stepping boldly into the presence of God and declaring what you see there to your fellow travelers.
I pray that I did that on Sunday, even in a small or imperfect way. And regardless, it is a marvelous comfort to know that it’s all grace around me.
(Ps- [shameless self-promotion alert]- if you’d like to see, read, or listen to my sermon, you can find it here, listed as “July 29, 2012: Rev. Erin Beall, Associate Minister: 2 Samuel 11:1-15)